Since time immemorial, humanity sought to find meaning, purpose and rationale for their existence and condition. Explanations shaped by forces of nature, superstition and exploited by power hungry overlords held sway over humanity for aeons. However, 2500 years ago, humankind experienced a profound transformation. Suddenly, there were new possibilities and, for the first time, rationality overruled superstition and mere belief
Upheaval across the globe sparked a new vision of what humans could achieve, spearheaded by three trail blazing, free-thinkers; Socrates, Confucius and Buddha. Three men of the ancient world, who still shape our lives today, laid the foundations for our modern world.
Three men a hundred years apart with the same radical ideas.
SOCRATES ( Born 470 BCE)
I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.
I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.
By all means marry: if you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher
A classical Greek philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy. He is an enigmatic figure known mainly through the accounts of classical writers, especially his students Plato and Xenophon and the plays by Aristophanes.
Socrates was born in Alopeke and belonged to the tribe Antioch’s. His father was a sculptor and stone mason, his mother a midwife named Phaenarete. Socrates had a rudimentary education and at first followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a stonemason.
Athenian law required all able bodied men to serve as citizen soldiers and they were on call for duty from 18-60 years of age. Socrates served in the infantry in 3 military campaigns during his lifetime.
Socrates described himself as a midwife: bringing the truth to birth within his interlocutors. Conversation usually began with clear, fixed ideas about the topic under discussion. For example, Laches, an army general was convinced that courage was a noble quality. And yet, Socrates pointed out, relentlessly piling one example on after another, a courageous act was often foolhardy.
Niceas, another general suggested courage required intelligence to appreciate terror. Socrates replied that in fact all terrible things we feel lay in the future, and were, therefore, unknown to us; it is impossible to separate knowledge of the future good or evil from our experience of good and evil in the present and the past.
Socrates said courage is only one of the virtues and we need to cultivate more than one. By the end of the conversation the generals had to admit, even though they had all endured the trauma of the battlefield and should be experts on the subject, they were unable to define courage.
Socrates had invented dialectics, a rigourous dialogue designed to explore false beliefs and elicit truth. By asking questions and analysing implications of the answer, Socrates and his colleagues discovered the inherent flaws and inconsistencies of every single point of view. Socrate’s aim was not to come up with a clever intellectual satisfying solution, but to admit there was no answer.
Socrates did not believe that courage, justice and friendship were empty fictions; he was convinced they pointed to something genuine and real that lay mysteriously out of reach. As his dialogues demonstrated, you could never pin down the truth, but if you worked hard enough, you could make it a reality in your life. In his discussion with Laches and Niceas he was interested in courage as a virtue, not as a concept.
KNOWLEDGE WAS MORALITY
For Socrates, the purpose of philosophy was not to propound abstruse theories about the Cosmos; philosophy was about learning how to live. Why was there so much evil in the world? It was because people had inadequate ideas about life and morality. If you understood the essence of goodness, you were bound to act properly. If you thought goodness self-serving or superficial, then you were destined to fail.
Socrates disapproved of writing, which he thought encouraged a slick, notional concept so he never wrote anything down. Our main sources of his dialogue were written down years later by his pupil’s one of which was Plato. Plato attributed many of his own insights and attitude to Socrates.
Sadly one of the great tragedies is the trial and death of Socrates in 399 BCE, he was accused of failing to recognise the gods of the state and of corrupting the young. He was sentenced to death. Friends gathered around his bed as he drank the prescribed hemlock, Plato says he washed his body to save the women the trouble after his death, he thanked his jailor kindly and even made a few jokes about his predicament. He was able to look death calmly in the face without fear.
Socrates believed that philosophy should achieve practical results for the greater well being of society. He attempted to establish an ethical system based on human reason rather than theological doctrine. A philosophy alive and well today.
CONFUCIUS (Born 551 BCE)
Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand
Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.
He was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history. He was born in Zou, Lu State, his father was an officer in the Lu military and died when Confucius was three years old. His mother Yan Zhengzai would raise him but would later die before her 40th birthday.
Confucius would be go to a school for commoners, where he studied the Six Arts. He worked in several government jobs during his twenties and also worked as a bookkeeper and a caretaker on a farm. He became an infamous Chinese thinker and educator, comparable to Socrates in the west, who developed a social and political philosophy of Chinese thought. He was the founder of the Ru school of Chinese thought that is now known as “Confucianism” which comes from the texts “Analects” by Confucius. One of his most renowned concepts is summed up in the following phrase
Do not do to others what you do not want done to you
It is difficult to trace the historical Confucius as his myth and legend have far surpassed the mere factual co-ordinates of his life. However we do know of his birth, early life, family and that he married a young girl named Qi Guan and had a son named Kong Li.
He focused his teaching on what is referred to as the six arts, Archery, Calligraphy, Chariots, Computation, Music and Ritual. Of his various subjects though, it was morality that was considered the most important. Through a proper understanding and practice of morality everything else could be rectified.
Some of the ways in which Confucius interpreted tradition were radically different in emphasis. The old religion focused on heaven and people often performed sacrifices to gain favour with the gods and spirits. Confucius, though, concentrated on this world and believed we should focus on what we know. He was not interested in metaphysics and discouraged theological chatter.
The “Anatects” give us most of what we know of Confucius and while he claimed to be a mere transmitter, scholars agree he did far more than transmit and it is his interpretations, expansions and departures that have given him such a lasting reputation. His teachings were revolutionary, radical and enlightening. His legacy has had a far reaching impact on both the Eastern and Western traditions.
He died at the age of 72, and it has been said he was under-recognised in his own life time, yet his legend and teachings live on. At the end of the 4th Century Mencius said
ever since man came into this world, there has never been one greater than Confucius
GAUTAMA BUDDHA (Born c 563 BCE or c 480 BCE)
Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.
You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger
Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without
Born in Nepal in the 6th Century BCE , he was a sage on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. He is believed to have lived and taught mostly in the North Eastern region of India.
He is said to have lived a life of wealth and privilege until his late twenties. On seeing the realities of death and disease he left his comfortable existence for a life of an ascetic for six years. He wanted to know how he could break the cycle of death and rebirth known as Samsara. (According to a persons current life is only one of many lives that will be lived – stretching back before birth into past existences and reaching forward beyond death into future incarnations. During the course of each life, the quality of the actions (karma) performed determine the future design of each person).
He searched out religious teachers but, when none could give him the answers to life he sought, he redoubled his efforts, enduring pain, fasting almost to starvation and refusing water.
Buddha came to the realisation that corporeal austerity was not the means to achieve inner liberation, that life should be a balance. He realised questioning humanity cannot be constrained in a belief system and that finding ones self is futile. He realised there is no beginning to the life cycle but that it can be ended through perceiving reality. The goal is to realise this truth and reach liberation (nirvana).
The simple truth he realised is we cannot know ourselves and so find the answer for the simple reason we have no permanent self to find, we continually change and re adjust. Everything is in fact impermanent, the way to live life is simply through the right attitude!
There is no need for heaven, gods or metaphysical knowledge, we simply have to extinguish desire, hatred and delusion and live with wisdom and compassion.
BUDDHA TAUGHT THE FOLLOWING :-
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
- Suffering is an ingrained part of existence
- The origin of suffering is craving for sensuality, acquisition of identity and fear of annihilation
- Suffering can be ended
- Following the Noble Eightfold Path is the means to accomplish this
THE NOBLE EIGHT FOLD PATH
- Right view
- Right intention
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihoood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
DEPENDANT ORIGINATION – the mind creates suffering as a natural product of a complex process
Buddha is believed to have died in May 544 BCE. At this death, Buddha is famously believed to have told his followers to follow no leader.
Humanity took a social and psychological leap forward with these three sages of old; people discovered each person was unique. The old tribalism, which had developed a communal mentality for survival of the groups, was being replaced by individualism. Socrates, Confucius and Buddha were preoccupied by the discovery of self.
They demanded every single person became self conscious and aware of what he/she was doing and to take responsibility for their own actions. We could not blame a god or deity for the inconsistencies in life.
Today we are making another leap forward. Our technology has created a global society which is interconnected electronically, militarily, economically and politically. We now have to develop a global consciousness whether we like it or not.
In “The Bacchae” the writer Euripede’s showed that it was dangerous to reject “the stranger”, but acceptance of the alien and the foreigner takes time.
What we should all realise by now is, as people and nations integrate around the globe, religion must be removed from the equation altogether as we embrace a rational thinking society. Otherwise we will see the demise of humanity sooner than we think and the blame will lie soundly at religion’s door.
As Buddha said
let no one deceive or despise another. Like a mother loves her child, cherish the world and love without limit
- Conversations of Socrates – by Xenophon
- The Trial and Execution of Socrates – Brickhouse – Oxford University Press
- Socrates without Tears – Alan Jacobs
- The Analects – Confucius (translated by Simon Leys)
- The Sayings of Confucius –
- The Essential Confucius – Thomas Cleary
- A Systematical Digest of the Doctrines of Confucius – Originally published in 1875
- The Buddha and his Dhamma – B R Ambedkar
- One Heart Clean Mind – Thubtan Chodran
- The Dhammapuda – Eknath Easwaran
- What the Buddha Taught – Walpole Rahula